Soldados de Cuera

Soldados de Cuera
By Joseph Adamo

[Originally appeared in the California Mission Studies Assn. Newsletter, August 1986.]

The Spanish soldier and his family made up most of the population in Alta California in the early years of Spanish rule. Besides manning presidios, the SOLDADOS also guarded Mission establishments throughout Alta. They explored unknown territory, represented royal authority to foreign visitors, and oversaw development of the pueblos of San Jose (1777) and Los Angeles (1781).

The requirements for enlistment were that men had to be at least sixteen years of age, five feet in height, in good health, Catholic and without known vices or defects. Pay amounted to somewhat more than subsistence. In 1773, sergeants, corporals and soldiers received 450, 400, and 365 pesos respectively, plus a varying of rations. In the early years of Alta California, soldiers were paid in goods rather than cash, but after 1781 de Neve regulations, they were paid partly in coin. Each peso or eight reales equalled approximately a dollar.

Weaponry consisted of a musket (ESCOPETA) fastened in a deerskin case, a broad sword (ESPADA ANCHA) and occasionally a brace of muzzle-loaded PISTOLAS and a lance. The lance continued in service well into the nineteenth century. These soldiers handled their lances with great expertise.

Uniform regulations of 1772 specified a short jacket of blue woolen cloth with small red cuffs and a red collar, breeches of blue, a cloth cap of the same color, a black neckerchief, hat with a red band, shoes and leggings (BOTTOS), a bandoleer of antelope hide with the name of the presidio leather-tooled upon it, and a cartridge box. A soldier cared for a REMUDA of six serviceable horses, one colt and one mule (one to be saddled and ready at all time in the event of a surprise attack).

Regulations also required saddles to be a vaquero-type with corresponding cover called a MOCHILA, saddle bag and enclosed wooden stirrups. All the soldier's gear belonged to him; it represented a sizeable investment. Sometimes upon retirement, if in need of money, he would sell some of his gear to new personnel coming up for recruitment. It was a hard but adventurous life for these brave men in this new frontier of the Spanish realm.

The following is a description of what their pay could buy: A real purchased three pounds and an eighth of jerky or one and four-fifths pounds of chile, a pound of biscuits or ten pounds of fresh beef. Eggs came at a higher price (two reales a dozen). The same amount would bring either two chickens, two hares or four rabbits. Livestock - two pesos a calf, heifer or two year old sheep. A bull brought five pesos if full grown and four pesos if only two years old.

Regulations also specified uniforms and equipment to be charged to the soldier's account. Many of the pieces, such as the heavy leather jerkin, a bullhide shield and a lance, set these men aside from the regulars. They were called SOLDADOS DE CUERA because of their heavy jerkin. Weighing some eighteen pounds and reaching almost a yard from the shoulders to the knee, this form of armor represented a mixture of an ancient European garment and a similar cotton quilted outfit worn by the Aztecs called ICHCIPILLI.

The CUERA, shaped like a coat without sleeves, was made of seven plies of white tanned deerskin. It provided protection against the arrows of the Indians except at very close range. The shield was heart-shaped, made of two plies of raw bullhide and carried on the left arm to turn away spears and arrows.